Archive for richmond

Confederacy Torn: A War of Ancestral Symbols

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2013 by Kontra

I grew up in the first state ever to secede from the Union. It was on the shore of South Carolina that my parents purchased me the only Confederate flag image I have ever owned: a raft on which I rode the waves of Myrtle and Lion’s beaches. Though I only personally handled this symbol during the humid southern summers, it surrounded me at all times. In fact, the Dixie flag flew over the South Carolina statehouse until the dawning of the 21st century, and while it can no longer be seen flapping in the breeze above the capital, it still sits on the lawn of the building.

I now live in Richmond, Virginia, a city positively saturated in Civil War history and legend.  (Let there be no doubt: I am a Southerner.)  It is here, in the capital of the Confederacy, that the ideological warfare surrounding the flag has found its latest incarnation.  As fall rolled across the Eastern Seaboard, two symbols were simultaneously hoisted over the city.


The first, a Southern Cross raised alongside Interstate 95, which now connects Richmond to the former Union capital of Washington, D.C. It was displayed by the Virginia Flaggers, a group that considers flying the flag “a way to protect and defend all Confederate heritage,”  openly rejecting the notion that it is, for them, a symbol of racism or slavery. “Heritage not hate,” as the saying goes.

The second: the Stars and Stripes. This (much larger) American flag was hung from a construction crane downtown in protest of the Confederate display. United RVA, the organization who paid for the display, gave interviews to local news channels to explain:

“We have a flag that unifies all of us here in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s the American flag. The Confederate flag is a symbol that at best divides our community, and at worst is a symbol of hatred, slavery, racism and oppression.”

 The lines are drawn, as they have been for some time. On one side, the claim that the Confederate flag cannot possibly be extricated from slavery and racism.  On the other, the claim that the two do not necessarily have any connection at all.  But if I am permitted a moment’s digression, I wish to propose that both sides of this debate have fallen victim to dangerous illusions: the supposed universality, simplicity and permanence of symbolic meanings.

Symbols Are Not Universal

Hearing these debates as an anti-racist Southerner tears a rift between my experience and my intellect. On the one hand, I spent the first half of my life around people who casually displayed the flag the way my sister and I did as children, running along the beach and bobbing in the ocean. My parents certainly held no openly racist ideas that I could determine at that age (or today), nor did most of the people who had Rebel flag stickers in the back of their vehicle windows, for example. It was a regional identifier of pride, a fuck-yeah/fuck-you redneck attitude—and to a lesser degree, advocacy of decentralized government—more than any identification with whiteness or derision of blackness. During those years, I wouldn’t have thought twice about seeing a person of color displaying one. (It’s possible that I did.)  I know that it’s possible to separate the symbol from race, because I did.

As I traveled and expanded my social circles during my early adult years, I had to accustom myself to the negative assumptions that people living outside (and those from outside) my region made about those who identified with the flag. I had to force myself to consider that it was once indeed the symbol of a group of people who, generally, believed in the institution of slavery and the inferiority of other races. And as time went on, I had to accept that some people who do hold racist beliefs gravitate towards symbols from a time when those beliefs were more common.

I had to consciously accept, in a way that the Virginia Flaggers refuse to, how the Confederate flag became a symbol for resistance to desegregation in the South only a few decades ago, and what that means for people of color who are old enough to still remember that, whose families are part of this community.  What abstract sense of honor or ancestral connection is worth triggering emotional responses to such experiences? Won’t the American flag suffice?

But it’s more complicated than that.

Symbols Are Not Simple


The first battle of the Civil War—and the birth of the American flag’s modern importance—occurred at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up. A Southern officer named Major Robert Anderson became a traitor to the Confederacy soon after South Carolina seceded when he occupied Fort Sumter with his garrison of troops, running (what we now call) the American flag up the pole and determining to hold the fort for the Union army. The Civil War had begun and the solidification of the Star-Spangled Banner as a nationalist symbol had been cemented.

“Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson’s surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11th attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads.” –Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening

But before the Yanks start cheering, take note: Major Robert Anderson was not only an openly pro-slavery racist, but a slave-owner.

To repeat: We have a racist slaveholder fighting against the Confederacy under the American flag in the opening battle of the war. Can it really be said, then, that racism or slavery is inherently linked to one particular flag? If so, which one? Does it matter that our nationalist flag has since been used as a banner for conquests, coups, preemptive invasions, resource extraction and straightforward destruction of non-whites?

Is it possible that in an attempt to show the Virginia Flaggers that it’s time to move on, to step beyond a war that is generations past, United RVA has brought us back to the very beginning in the most explicit way they possibly could: us versus them, battle of the same old flags?

The Confederate history groups in Richmond claim that they are absolutely able to honor their direct ancestors via the symbolism of a flag without honoring every single thing they did or believed in. Is this true? If not, does that mean that other Americans must abandon the Stars and Stripes for our ancestors’ use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or for supporting brutal dictators all over the world? For training Latin American warlords at the School of the Americas?

If it is compassionate to sacrifice the symbol of the Confederacy to people who lived through the desegregation of the south, how much more carefully must we tuck away the American flag in sight of a man from Fallujah, a child of the Japanese internment, a Palestinian woman whose house was bulldozed by US-financed equipment?

I will doubtlessly be despised for finding nuance where others see clear-cut moral certitude.  (This is, in fact, the nature of moral certitude.) If I mention, for example, that General Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist—that he called slavery a “moral and political evil”; that he was originally a Union general who was loathe to go to war but refused to allow his own Virginia statesmen to die; that his family worked to free slaves and provide them safe passage back to Africa while educating other slaves at an illegal school—I am virtually guaranteed to be called a racist slavery apologist.

And that would be somewhat fair. He actually thought that slavery was worse for white people than for blacks, and that only the slow Christianization of Africans would ready them for civilized coexistence—a theory readily provided by the Bible’s explicit instructions on how to handle slaves, and the promulgation of those directives through the church. (If mere symbols like the flags can be racist, precisely how racist does this make the Bible?)

Reality is complicated. Simplistic views on either side will not suffice.

Symbols Are Not Permanent

Finally, let us look at symbols in another context. If I were to point out that Guy Fawkes, current worldwide symbol of liberation and transparency, was an objectionable theocrat who fought for the Spanish Catholic empire to brutally repress the Dutch independence movement, it will be suggested that the modern interpretation of his persona is what really matters. Even the descendants of the Dutch freedom fighters he murdered have donned Guy Fawkes masks in demonstrations over the past 5 years.

Consider the morphology mashup represented by this aggressive image, which was published when the Virginia Flaggers announced their plan to raise the Confederate flag in Richmond:


A totally recontextualized symbolic character burning another recontextualized symbol because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to recontextualize symbols.


It is easy to forget, trapped (as we all must be) in a specific time and place, that the meanings of social and political symbols are not fixed. They are fluid, shifting and most importantly, personal. Frankly, I no longer have use for them as rallying or flash points. They can be momentarily useful as emblems of ideas, but are inevitably mired in human complexities impossible to represent in simple visual cues. They will inevitably mutate and they will inevitably offend.

I am no longer interested in being united by imagery and symbols.  I’m interested in ideas.  To the Virginia Flaggers and United RVA, I humbly suggest Thomas Paine as a starting point:

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

M3: Richmond Women Take the Capitol

Posted in Other Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2012 by Kontra

After mandatory, penetrative ultrasound and “personhood” bills are introduced and a peaceful candlelight vigil is stalked by a machine-gun-toting SWAT team, Virginia women stage civil disobedience on the steps of the capitol.

Occupy: A Finger Pointing to the Moon

Posted in Other Media with tags , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by Kontra

This short segment will be playing nationally on Pacifica radio in conjunction with clips from other occupations, all attempting to answer the question: Is Occupy a moment or a movement?
Thanks to Salem, Hermelinda and S.O.N.G.

Richmond Crimes, Cops & Campuses

Posted in Articles, Other Media with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2011 by Kontra

In the midst of a violent robbery at VCU and a shooting incident at University of Richmond, debates rage about student rights to self-defense.

November 25, 2011
It was only 7:18pm as a female student walked by VCU’s Bowe Street parking deck. It was dark, but not late by any measure. She did not have time to call 911 or find her nearest emergency call center as the man in the black hoodie approached her. She had no way to resist as he punched her in the face, knocking her to the ground.

By the time the encounter was over, she would be beaten, her face swollen, her body covered in bruises, her wallet stolen. Had her attacker decided to use the hammer that he held in one hand, she would have either been permanently injured or killed.

One of the victim’s acquaintances tells me that she’s not the same after the incident. She doesn’t go to class much. She feels unable to think and process her work in the way that she used to. And who could be the same after such an incident? I dare say that most of us cannot imagine what this kind of violence would do to us. If the young woman manages to avoid symptoms of post-traumatic stress, she will be one of the fortunate few.

It was less than one week after this violent assault that I found myself standing in the VCU compass with a Ruger 9mm visibly strapped to my hip. A few dozen other people, also wearing guns, were milling about and casually talking amongst themselves and to the nearby police officers. Like most everyone else, I was also wearing a bright orange sticker that read “Guns Save Lives”. We had assembled to to protest VCU’s restriction of concealed weapons on campus.

The traumatizing experience of this VCU student was only the latest manifestation of the legal restrictions on students defending themselves. Guns are used in self-defense about 2.5 million times a year in the U.S., and in more than 90% of those cases, no one is injured. (The gun is merely shown, made reference to in a threatening manner, or a warning shot is fired.) With about 7,500 reported violent crimes on campuses each year, one doesn’t need to look hard to find instances in which self-defense with a concealed weapon would have been justified by the law – had they only occurred somewhere else.

What many people don’t know is that universities have no legal obligation to protect their students. What even more people don’t know is that police have no legal obligation to protect anyone (as determined by the Supreme Court). Neither a university nor the police can be held legally responsible or sued for injury or death, regardless of how negligent or egregious their behavior may have been. Without the right of students to defend themselves, there is no alternative to victimhood. This is why we had assembled.

Of course, our presence did not go unopposed.

About a dozen people from the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence had shown up to counter-protest. The name of the group is both nonspecific – who, aside from the criminally insane, doesn’t want to stop gun violence? – and strategically misleading. The name is also relatively new. The organization started in 1974 with the more honest designation, “The National Coalition to Ban Handguns”[1]. Just as it sounds, the stated goal was to eliminate the private ownership of all handguns in the US. The organization is opposed to the concealed carry of weapons entirely, and believes that legislation preventing the sale of guns between individuals, which they refer to as “the gun show loophole”, will reduce violent crime.

I showed up to this event with my video camera, determined to document not only what the speakers in favor of concealed carry had to say, but also some conversation with the counter-demonstrators to more specifically identify what their concerns with concealed carry on campus were. I ended up with this 12-minute video, which contains enough of the speakers to have some understanding of their point of view, and about 80% of the conversations I recorded with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence members and supporters.

Cops to the Rescue?
There were a number of arguments advanced against concealed carry in this video, some more interesting than others. It would be foolish to try to address them all in a single article of this length, but there is one, given its timeliness and particular ubiquity in the anti-gun camp that deserves immediate attention. The point of view can be summarized thusly:

“Let the police take care of things.”

Criminologist Gary Kleck has spent a lifetime studying guns and their effects on society. In 1993, he won the Michael J. Hindelang Award from the American Society of Criminology for his book “Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America”. His knowledge has been sought out from independent panels, state legislatures and the United States Congress. In the course of these studies, he has naturally interacted with a number of people who subscribe to the view that citizens ought to leave the use of guns for defense to the police. He breaks these arguments into three categories:

    Doubts about the defensive utility of guns [for people other than the police], then, appear to rest on any of three beliefs: (1) civilians do not need any self-protective devices, because they will almost never confront criminals, or at least will almost never do so while they have access to a gun, or (2) they do not need guns because they can rely on the police for protection, or (3) civilians, unlike police, are not able to use guns effectively, regardless of need.

The first two proposals here are obviously false, and only deserve passing comment:
1) The FBI’s National Crime Victimization Survey estimates indicate that 83% of Americans will, sometime over the span of their lives, be a victim of a violent crime, all of which by definition involve direct confrontation with a criminal.
2) The police almost never stop crimes in progress. Most of their job involves patrolling for visibility and cleaning up after crimes that have already occurred. This is common knowledge and common sense.

The third proposition – that police have “special training” that allows them to use handguns more effectively – is one that I have continually heard echo throughout the anti-gun movement in all its forms, and deserves to be addressed, as it might be easily believed by someone not willing to look into the matter.

There are two reasonable ways we can determine whether the claim that police are far more qualified to handle guns is true.

Target Practice
The first is to simply find out what police training looks like. Fortunately, this is not difficult. I have a close friend who is a police officer (and a staunch supporter of concealed carry laws, I might add), and he shared with me the police “special training” methods: they shoot at targets.

Richmond Police Department firearm training room

Targets are hung up and turned edgewise, and at the click of a button by the trainer, the target turns to face the officer. The officer shoots at it. They score points for rounds that hit the target. The target moves closer and they do it again. A certain number of points means they pass. If they fail (it’s rare), they stay after class and try again.

Officers must qualify like this only once a year in most states (like Virginia), and in some states you never have to do it again at all.

No, really. That’s it.

Sure, some departments actually go outdoors and shoot at targets that don’t swivel, as you can see by this video. This “special training” includes instruction such as, “kneel down and shoot at any three targets you want”.

Some departments use video games, which the public occasionally gets to try out.

Suffice to say that police have no more training in the handling and firing of a weapon than anyone who takes occasional trips to their local shooting range, and there is certainly no special training relating to school shooting scenarios and the like.

Margins of Error
Another way we can test the claim that police are more qualified to defend us than we are is by taking a look at the performance of the two groups in violent, real-world situations.

You might be as surprised as the editors of Newsweek were when a study they commissioned found that police are 5.5 times more likely to shoot an innocent person than armed citizens are (11% vs 2% error respectively). The University of Chicago and others have found that discrepancy to be even more pronounced, but the conservative figure alone is telling. But that is not the whole story. As it turns out, armed citizens shoot and kill twice as many criminals every year as police do. When adjusting for this quantity, you are ~11 times more likely to be accidentally shot by a police officer than an armed citizen. This is no small margin of error.

But what about school shooting scenarios? Wouldn’t students with concealed weapons turn already dangerous situations into bloodbaths?

Assessing the risks of concealed carry holders in school shooting scenarios is difficult, primarily because states that permit concealed carry in schools have never had a shooting incident. (I’ll be careful not to draw a hasty conclusion from that.) But let’s take a look at a couple of examples where students and faculty ended up with guns in their hands anyway.

Sixteen-year-old Luke Woodham began his day by stabbing and bludgeoning his mother to death in her sleep. Afterward, he drove to Pearl High School with a rifle, walked inside, shot his ex-girlfriend and another young woman to death and went on to wound seven others.
Assistant Principal Joel Myrick took a .45 Colt with him everywhere, but due to school regulations, was not able to bring it inside the building. Unfortunately, he had to run all the way to the parking lot and retrieve it from his car before he could hold Woodham at gunpoint for the police, who had not arrived.

Peter Odighizuwa, a former student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA, showed up one afternoon with a handgun. He headed directly to the Dean’s office, executing him at point-blank range. The same happened to professor Dale Rubin. Odighizuwa continued firing, killing one student and wounding three others.
At the first sound of gunshots, two students independently ran to their vehicles to retrieve personal handguns that they could not legally carry on campus. They, too, were able to hold the shooter at gunpoint until police arrived on the scene.

Crossfire in these scenarios? None. Lives may have been saved, but none were taken – not even the lives of the murderers.

But let’s suppose that the students had opened fire on the murderers. To say that the risk of crossfire outweighs the known consequences of having none at all (as much death as the killer can deliver) is inexplicable. We know that in school shooting situations, killers methodically walk through classrooms and hallways, executing as many people as they possibly can. It strains the imagination to envision a student staring down the barrel of a gun held by someone who has just murdered 20 other people in cold blood, moments away from death, and not wanting there to be someone shooting at the killer. The options are certain death by a madman or possible death by someone who has the power to stop the carnage. It is beyond reason for anyone to choose certain death for themselves (not to mention for the other people whose lives could be saved!) because they otherwise might die.

One can hardly imagine police showing up to a school massacre, allowing the killer to continue slaughtering students until there are no more alive who could possibly be struck by an errant bullet before they fire, then telling the press, “Well, we didn’t want anyone to be injured in crossfire.”

All of this said, it’s important to note that school shootings are statistically very rare. Because of their horror and emotional potency, they stand out in our minds and make it easy for us to assume that they happen more often than they do. (This is known as the logical fallacy of misleading vividness.) The need for students or faculty to carry a concealed weapon are much more likely to resemble the vicious assault and robbery that took place at VCU not so long ago.

Sometimes guns are wildly fired on campuses in Richmond, but as we shall see, the perpetrators are not who you might expect.

“Campus Shooting, Richmond Style”
“Special Training in Action”
It was less than a week after the VCU event that gunshots rang out on the University of Richmond campus. But this time there was no disgruntled employee, no scorned student bent on revenge. This time students were ducking for cover for an entirely different reason.

Colin O’Leary just wanted to smoke some weed. On the day in question, he and a friend sat in a parked vehicle on the University of Richmond campus to do just that. The gunfire might have been avoided if only he had parked the SUV on concrete instead of grass. Vigilant U of R police, concerned with health and well-being of the lawn, approached the vehicle and asked why he was parked on it, and moments later, why they smelled marijuana.

In some of the only investigative reporting the school paper The Collegian has ever done, eyewitnesses report that a half hour of conversation ensued, during which Colin essentially continued made silly excuses for the smell. Finally, an officer noticed the small bag of weed in the armrest. When he asked Colin to produce it for him, Colin put the SUV into gear. The officer told him not to go anywhere, but Colin let off the break and pulled away.

Suddenly, in an utterly inexplicable loss of composure, the officer drew his handgun and began firing at the vehicle. The eyewitnesses ducked their heads as the bullets flew, one of which struck the officer’s own police car. (Also inexplicably, O’Leary escaped by simply driving away, though he turned himself in the next day.)

Is this the “special training” I’ve been hearing so much about? Illegally and wildly firing at non-threatening misdemeanor suspects on a college campus? If this person were not a police officer, he would be charged with attempted murder and a host of other firearm-related crimes, and rightly so. Firing the weapon was completely unjustifiable by any code of conduct – certainly by any code of responsible firearm handling. Is there anything so reckless as endangering the lives of students with a gun in an apparent attempt to kill someone in possession of a tiny quantity of a substance widely known to be less harmful than either cigarettes or alcohol?

If the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence needs a new location to demonstrate, I think I know just the place.

Occupy Richmond: Take II

Posted in Photography with tags , , , , , , , on November 1, 2011 by Kontra

Unfortunately, I left an hour before the police raid on Occupy Richmond.

I had planned on getting arrested.

Not to worry. We’re not done by a long shot.

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? – V